We all know songs that have a special meaning for us, they may be joyous, sentimental, uplifting, nostalgic, funny, ironic, relateable, or just plain guilty pleasures, but this week 4TR is exploring the world’s most depressing, tragic, grimly gloomy songs from the last fifty years – no I’m not talking about albums from the likes of Mitch Miller, Mantovani, Ferrante and Teicher, Andre Rieu or Richard Clayderman – although in their own way they are thoroughly depressing compilations of MOR schlock, that sound like scratching a blackboard to many people, but really depressing stuff that we know, have listened to, and perhaps even purchased, only to later regret – you know, those really guilty pleasures. The golden era of depressing songs did not really commence until after the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, as new and disturbing aspects were introduced to everyday life: the cold war, missile crises, Vietnam, assassinations, street violence, drug abuse, pollution, and the 20-minute drum solo.US performers such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits (above), John Prine (below), Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Bobby Goldsboro, and Steve Earle led the way in delivering mournful masterpieces of melodic misery.These songs are sometimes referred to as R.I.P. Rock, Rigor Mortis Rhythms, Splatter Platters, Death Discs, Tear Jerkers, and it’s impossible to review them without categorising theme into sub-genres, so here goes.I hope you “enjoy” this world-class collection of depressing songs, which also includes several terrific examples of local Australian hits that slot neatly into this genre. Part 1 this week will feature songs in the following sub-categories – I Was a Teenage Car Crash, I Hate Myself and Want to Die, Natural Disasters, Justifiable Homicide, Keeping It in the Family, and Southern Gothic.Part 2 follows next week with – Justice and Retribution, The Needle and the Damage Done, I’m Telling a Story You May Not Want to Hear, Paranormal Visitations, Derailed on the Road of Life, and Death In The Suburbs.
Carroll County Accident – Bobby and Laurie
Hollywood Seven- Jon English (above)
Maxine – Sharon O’Neill (below)
Banks of the Ohio-Olivia Newton- John
I Gotta Get A Message To You – Bee Gees
Where the Wild Roses Grow – Kylie Minogue and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
The Curse of Millhaven – Nick Cave and the Bad SeedsPART 1
I Was a Teenage Car Crash
The popularity of the teenage car crash songs was inspired by the deaths of celebrities in car and airplane accidents, and shootings at the time – James Dean (below), Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, Richie Valens, Eddie Cochrane, Sam Cooke, Johnny Ace, and others. They were also the ultimate teen rebellion songs, the only way out of parents’ and/or society’s control and expectations, was apparently death.The genre’s popularity faded around 1965 (as a mostly American phenomenon, it was one of many musical formats that were drowned out by the British Invasion), but inspired a host of similar songs and parodies over the years.
Tell Laura I Love Her – Ray Petersen (1960)- An early Romeo and Juliet tragedy, “Tommy and Laura were lovers…”, young, white and starstruck, entering a NASCAR race on a whim was clearly a road to nowhere for Tommy, Laura is still praying in that chapel. Teen Angel– Mark Dinning (1960)– written by Mark’s sister Jean Dinning, “…the car was stalled, upon the railroad track…” they both get out, but she goes back to retrieve her high school ring, the train arrives and …
Last Kiss – J Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers (1964)/and Pearl Jam (1999) – it’s raining, a car is stalled in the middle of the road, the young guy and his girl try to swerve, followed by “the crying tyres, the busting glass, the painful scream that I heard last…” but he knows he’s got be good if he wants to get to heaven to see his dear departed, Eddie Vedder didn’t mumble so much when he covered this one.
Dead Man’s Curve – Jan and Dean (1964)– a song about a completely irresponsible street race between a Jaguar XKE and a Corvette Sting Ray along Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles, the Jag driver lost it at Deadman’s Curve. Classic spoken word insert towards the end as Jan Berry tells the doctor what happened, two years later he too would barely survive a terrible accident, also whilst driving a Corvette Stingray near Deadman’s Curve, in Beverley Hills.
Leader of the Pack – The Shangri-Las (1964) – Producer “Shadow” Morton plucked the Weiss and Ganser twins from Queens (NYC), called them the Shangri – Las, threw in pleading vocals from Mary Weiss, and cataclysmic sound effects as the Harley disintegrates, it had the lot, but the promo clip featured Robert Goulet playing the biker, in a monumental piece of mis-casting. Betty Weiss was not allowed to make personal appearances with the group as she was a single teenage mother!
Terry – Twinkle (1965)– An insipid copycat effort by Twinkle (Lynne Ripley), motorcycle hero accelerates off into the night while she pleads “don’t do it, don’t do it…” a British attempt at the teenage car crash genre, which the Americans really owned. I Hate Myself and Want to Die
This category profiles self-pitying songs in which the singer is under the delusion that his or her personal problems are of great interest to everyone.
My Immortal – Evanescence (2003) – the band was formed in the 1990’s by singer/pianist Amy Lee and guitarist Ben Moody, they specialised in dramatic goth pop/rock, Amy’s piercing soprano could strip paint, and in this paean to self-pitying, they rhyme tears, fears and years, and although her lover has jilted her, she still begs for his “presence” to disappear, the other half of the duo Moody, did disappear soon after this song.
One – Metallica (1989) – Heavy metal groups tend to err on the side of gloom and doom, and this song is no exception, based on the depressing book and movie Johnny Got His Gun, written by Dalton Trumbo, about an armless, legless war veteran with no face , who’s blind, mute and deaf, and is essentially waiting to die in a hospital bed. The two minute introduction is quite reflective until lead singer James Hetfield starts screaming through clenched teeth, the music builds in intensity as double-tracked guitars are shredded through distortion pedals, drummer Ulrich hammers away, and the song hits thrash metal warp speed until it reaches an abrupt conclusion, the video borrows content from the movie, it is similarly grim, confronting, and uber depressing.At Seventeen – Janis Ian (1975)– Had her first hit at 15 with the depressing interracial love song Society’s Child, moved onto this self-loathing classic with a bossa nova beat and acoustic guitar, that bemoaned the gilded life of “homecoming queens with ice cream smiles”, while she, the acne-scarred, bitter, friendless young girl who always got passed over when basketball sides were being chosen – things looked up for Janis once she came out of the closet and found true love.
The Ballad of Lucy Jordan (1980)– Marianne Faithful – Marianne will forever be remembered as Mick Jagger’s girlfriend back in the 60’s, and as the unnamed female who was wearing nothing but a fur coat when the drugs squad raided the Stones pad. She subsequently endured a long period of drug abuse, prostitution, and her voice disintegrated. But she re-emerged in 1979 with the album Broken English and stunned the public with this tale of the mental disintegration and suicide of one Lucy Jordan, maybe semi-autobiographical?
Plane crashes, road trauma, shipwrecks, mine disasters, deadly storms… bad karma makes great records.
Ebony Eyes – Everley Bros.(1961) – Don and Phil didn’t really do splatter songs but they had a hit with this one, the bride-to-be is due to arrive on Flight 1203, the public address system then directs friends and relatives to the chapel across the street – what’s the surprise?
Wildfire -Michael Murphy (1975)– A gorgeous piano ballad which tells the tale of a mysterious woman who lived on Yellow Mountain, and died in a storm one night trying to save her horse Wildfire, but he knows she’s riding back into his life – a hoot owl told him. Murphy was the Robert Redford of country rock, check out a live performance by him on YouTube, this one could have also featured under the paranormal visitations category.
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (1976)– Gordon Lightfoot – There aren’t too many songs about shipwrecks – the Titanic, the Lusitania, the Andrea Doria didn’t warrant moody ballads. But Lightfoot’s ode to this rather insignificant freighter that plied the Great Lakes and sank in 1975, drowning 29 crew, was a big hit, despite the fact that it had a glacial tempo, no bridge, 1400 words, no love interest, Gordon has the ship heading for Cleveland instead of Detroit, and then naming all of the five Great Lakes towards the end, to round off a boring geography lesson. Sundown was better.New York Mining Disaster 1941– Bee Gees (1967) – Robin’s tremulous vibrato took on a distinct North Country accent as the Gibbs tried hard to sound like the Beatles, for the record there was no mining disaster in NYC in 1941, but the boys were moved by the Aberfan mining tragedy in Wales in 1966, when a slag heap engulfed the local school and parts of the town, killing 144, an early pocket symphony from Barry, Robin and Maurice.
DOA – Bloodrock (1971) – The really creepy songs are where the singer is already dead, here the narrator is a corpse on the coroner’s slab, describing his lethal injuries and the willowy but inert girlfriend who is also a victim of the same plane crash, who is lying next to him. An ominous doom-laden organ drenches the whole mix until the emergency sirens come screaming into the background, not quite drowning out the wailing vocals of front man Jim Rutledge. Bloodrock were a Texan blues-rock group who were deservedly a one-hit wonder.Big Bad John – Jimmy Dean (1961) – “There came that day at the bottom of the mine, when timbers cracked and men started crying …” Big John sacrificed himself to save his co-workers, but did he really die? Well according to the rarely heard Jimmy Dean response song “The Cajun Queen”, she came down from New Orleans and plucked the big fella out of the “smoke and gas of that man-made hell”, and revived him with a “red-hot kiss”- with the power of love who needs paramedics and defibrillators.
There was a rash of death row songs around the early 70’s that seemed to justify the OT “eye- for- an- eye” approach to dispensing justice. Tom Jones, the Bee Gees, Tony Christie, ONJ, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and others all presented less than convincing pleas for a defence of the charge of murder, they were hugely popular songs and probably appealed to our basic human instinct to wreak revenge on the things that annoyed us – politicians, bad baristas, Collingwood supporters, Milli Vanilli, etc.
I Did What I Did for Maria – Tony Christie (1971)– “take an eye for an eye, and a life for life, and somebody must die for the death of my wife…” pretty much summed up this hit for Brit Tony Christie in 1971, coming hard on the heels of Delilah and Gotta Get A Message To You, by Tom Jones( (Tony was a bit of a Tom Jones sound-a-like) and the Bee Gees respectively.
Janie’s Got a Gun – Aerosmith (1989) – Steve Tyler and bass player Tom Hamilton wrote this song about a girl who is being sexually abused by her father, whom she kills. The video depicted the slaying of the abuser by the girl, and the subsequent crime scene. It is one of the most cinematic videos ever made, directed by David Fincher, who would later direct the movies Se7en, Alien III and Panic Room. Fincher’s talent for building tension in a scene is evident in the clip, and many of the lighting and composition techniques would later show up in his feature films.
Banks of the Ohio – Olivia Newton-John (1971) – Hard to justify the way that ONJ literally sticks it her to her unfaithful lover after suggesting that “they take a little walk”, she was apparently uncomfortable about recording this song inspired by an Appalachian murder ballad, but it became her breakthrough hit, she was also uncomfortable about releasing Physical, but after it sold 7 million copies, she just rolled with it.
Delilah – Tom Jones (1968)– Tom also sticks it to his unfaithful lover, with the biblically-inspired name of Delilah, who tricked Samson into revealing the source of his strength, not surprisingly “Delilah” never soared in the preferred baby name lists.
I Shot the Sheriff- Eric Clapton (1974) – Written and originally recorded by Bob Marley, but Eric had the hit version, his defence was that while he shot the sheriff, he didn’t shoot the deputy – only sounds reasonable when the Marley Man gives it the full reggae treatment, and you just know that a deal can be done with corruptible authorities in Jamaica.
Keeping It In The Family
One of the most disturbing genre themes are songs about deeds committed in the interests of keeping the family together or developing an inappropriate relationship with other members of the family including things like sexting, necropohilia, incest, and chain letters (maybe not the last one).
Alive/Once/Footsteps – Pearl Jam (1992- 94)– Known as The Mamasan Trilogy, these three songs released in the early 1990’s were quite a sordid little soap opera, once we translated Eddie Vedder’s mumbles, got our head around the twisted narrative, and waded through the sludge of slurring fuzz tone guitars. The trilogy explores incest, serial killing and execution in three acts. In Alive a young boy who looks remarkably like his deceased father is seduced by his mother, this causes him to become a seriously dysfunctional individual, so that by act two, the song Once, he has become a serial killer, who murders prostitutes and symbolically kills his mother each time. By the time we get to Footsteps, the final act, the son has been arrested and awaits his execution on death row, this is how grunge added incest to injury, metaphorically-speaking.
Me and My Old Lady – The Offspring (1994) – Orange County in L.A. spawned a punk movement in the 1980’s which included The Offspring who had a big hit with their album Smash in 1994, it sold 6 million copies and reveled in songs about unwashed losers, and glazed-eyed stoners, and this one was no exception. We meet a white trailer trash couple who crash on a soiled mattress from dawn til’ dusk and may or may not be in an incestuous relationship, as they “quench their libidos”, the dictates of good taste prevent me from further analysing this one.
Father Figure – George Michael (1988) – George Michael went from clean-cut, perfectly coiffured, “Choose Life”-top-wearing teen heartthrob, to unshaven rogue, wearing aviator sunglasses and a leather jacket and cavorting with lingerie-clad sirens in his music videos, to a gay man arrested in a Beverley Hills public toilet for “lewd behaviour,” which caused people to check the lyrics of some of his post-Wham songs. Father Figure along with I Want Your Sex came in for special attention, the latter because it was all about lusting for female flesh while George was more interested in the Culture Club drummer at the time, and the former because of the creepy paternal metaphors that appeared throughout. Repeated lyrical references by George telling the object of his affection to “put his tiny hand in his”, offering to be his” preacher teacher”, and “daddy”, to greet him with the “eyes of a child”, and further adding that such love is sometimes “mistaken for a crime”. There are just too many call-me-daddy references for this song to pass the pub test.
The Southern Gothic genre reflects the unique social and cultural forces at play in decaying rural communities in America’s Deep South, where poverty, alienation, and cultural deprivation spawns deeply flawed and eccentric characters, capable of aimless violence, incest, infidelity and racial hostilities, all within sinister nightmarish family relationships – often reflected in very creepy songs.
Ode to Billy Joe – Bobby Gentry (1967) – A song that set tongues wagging when released, was it autobiographical, after all it was set in Chickasaw County, Mississippi where Bobbie Gentry had been raised? The narrator has a relationship with Billie Joe Mc.Allister who has just committed suicide by throwing himself off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The couple were recently seen at the same bridge by the local preacher, throwing something into the water – flowers, a ring, an infant, no one knows, and Gentry has sworn to never reveal, the beautiful southern belle cleverly blurred the lines between fantasy and reality here.
The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia – Vicki Lawrence (1973) – Better known as a cast member on the Carol Burnett Show in the 70’s, Lawrence was briefly married to songwriter Bobby Russell (1972-74) who penned this one for her as well as Honey for Bobby Goldsboro and Little Green Apples for O.C. Smith. A typical down south splatter platter, with a complex plot, a man’s wife is unfaithful with her husband’s best friend, the best friend is murdered, and the husband is unjustly tried and executed for the crime. As the song concludes the narrator, who is the condemned man’s sister, reveals that not only did she shoot the cheating best friend, but also her brother’s cheating wife, who has since mysteriously disappeared – OK so that clears it up doesn’t it, except that little sister let her brother swing for a murder she had committed!
Carroll County Accident – Bobby and Laurie (1969) – The duo (below) were into their C&W phase around this time having had success with Hitchhiker, High Noon etc, and this slice of Southern Gothic which told the tale of infidelity, small-town adultery, and road trauma, and here we are back in Bobbie Gentry country again in Mississippi, there’s something in the water down there. Millers Cave – Bobby Bare (1964)– Down south in Georgia this time, the narrator is upset when he discovers that his girl is having it off with Big Dave, “the meanest man in Waycross Georgia”, so he promptly drills them both and “drags their cheatin’ schemin’ bones to Millers Cave”, but he will have time to reflect on his crimes, as he reveals in the last line, he’s “lost in Millers Cave.”